Collapse of opposition another blow for Malaysia’s democratic prospects.
Back in February, just after Anwar Ibrahim lost his appeal against sodomy charges and was given a harsh five-year jail sentence, New Mandala spoke to Malaysia politics expert John Funston.
He said that without Anwar around to unite the conflicting policies and personalities, maintaining the opposition alliance would be “extremely difficult”.
He was spot on.
A mere four months after Anwar’s jailing and the seven-year-old People’s Alliance, or Pakatan Rakyat, has called it a day, declaring Wednesday that it no longer “functions formally”.
It brings an end to Malaysia’s most successful opposition movement; one which won the majority of votes in 2013’s general election to almost unseat the six-decade ruling coalition Barisan Nasional. Only gerrymandering of seats saw Barisan Nasional maintain power.
The collapse of the coalition comes about after attempts by the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS) to enforce the controversial Islamic law, hudud. The Chinese-dominated Democratic Action Party (DAP) objected to the move and now the two parties have severed ties.
Which raises the question; what does this mean for the already slim hopes of democracy in Malaysia?
The first thing to keep in mind is that while Pakatan Rakyat showed great promise as a possible alternative to the ruling Barisan Nasional, it was never a cohesive alliance.
“The collapse came about for the same reason the parties split after the 1999 election – because a group within PAS has sought to press for an extreme version of its Islamic ideology,” says Funston.
“This time the pro-Ulama group are even stronger – after a bitter campaign they won a clean sweep of all top positions in the party’s general assembly earlier this month.”
Another key difference is that the pro-Ulama group is now looking to work with Prime Minister Najib Razak’s UMNO party to achieve its goals – in particular the implementation of the extreme hudud law in PAS-run Kelantan.
But as Funston points out, as too Tom Pepinsky here, it might not be the end of collaboration between the former alliance parties.
“In the absence of a formal coalition some cooperation still seems likely, in particular for the Selangor state administration where the three parties have similar representation,” says Funston. “But this will not make for a unified administration, and further efforts by PAS to implement hudud might imperil even this.”
With elections due in 2018, the demise of the alliance will significantly reduce the opposition’s prospects of successfully challenging the government. And if PAS does end up building an alliance with UMNO, this also does not bode well for Malaysia’s non-Malay parties.
“Some opposition members have mooted a grand alliance against the ruling coalition, drawing on support from moderate Malay NGOs, and perhaps headed by UMNO veteran Tengku Razaleigh,” says Funston.
“Such a realignment would be difficult to accomplish, though some movement in this direction is possible if the PAS professionals align more closely with DAP and PKM, and other Malay moderates continue to join these two parties.”
Meanwhile Barisan Nasional are going through their own potential divorce, with an ongoing clash between former prime minister Dr Mahathir and Najib sending the ruling party to the brink (read this New York Times piece for a good overview of the back story involving the PM’s wife’s spending sprees and the murder of a Mongolian model).
The upshot is that Mahathir has called time on Razak, saying his many failures, including that of sovereign wealth fund 1MDB, means he must go.
“The 90-year-old Mahathir is relentless, and has an outstanding record of bringing opponents down,” says Funston. “He may well continue until he succeeds in this case.
“Najib has responded vigorously, and benefits from the fact that there is no obvious successor. But he has not mounted a plausible defence against Mahathir’s charges, and momentum could move against him quickly if party leaders come to accept Mahathir’s claim that UMNO will not win the next election while Najib remains in charge.”
With three years until elections, the drama is only set to build.
James Giggacher is editor of New Mandala.